Mobsters in America – Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson – The Godfather of Harlem

Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson was known as a murderous policy numbers baron in Harlem during the 1930’s, but he was, in fact, the conduit between the Italian Mob and the Harlem rackets for almost three decades.

Ellsworth Johnson was born in Charleston, South Carolina on October 31, 1905. He got the nickname “Bumpy” because he had a huge dump on the back of his head. Johnson was said to be a brilliant child, and by the time he was eight years old, he had already skipped two grades. When Johnson was ten years old, his brother Willie was accused of killing a white man. Afraid of a lynch mob for Willie, Johnson’s parents sent Willie to live up north. Bumpy Johnson was a proud black man, who was defiant of the segregation and violence perpetrated on the blacks in the deep south. Johnson’s parents were worried Johnson, who had a violent temper, would follow in his brother Willie’s footsteps, so in 1919, they sent Johnson to Harlem to stay with his Aunt Mabel.

After graduating from Boys High in Brooklyn and attending City College for a few semesters, Johnson got involved with a wild element in Harlem. As a result, he made several trips to prison for such crimes as armed robbery and burglary. In a 10-year stretch of prison life, Johnson, because of his penchant for violence, spent a full three years in solitary confinement. When he was released in 1932, he had spent more that half his years on earth behind bars.

Back on the streets causing mayhem, Johnson caught the eye of Stephanie St. Clair, called “Madame Queen” in Harlem. Johnson became chief lieutenant to St. Clair, but it was rumored they were also lovers, even though St. Clair was 20 years older than Johnson.

St. Clair was a numbers baron who was being squeezed out of the rackets by crazed gangster Dutch Schultz. Schultz used every trick in the book to drive St. Clair out of Harlem, including killing her numbers runners and paying the cops, much more that St. Clair was paying the cops, to arrest her numbers runners on sight. Johnson, knowing Schultz was not a reasonable man, went to Italian mob boss Lucky Luciano and asked Luciano to intercede in St. Clair’s behalf. Luciano was impressed with Johnson gumption and intelligence, but he told Johnson there was not much he could do as far as Schultz was concerned, since they were partners in several other illegal endeavors. Johnson decided to take the war to Schultz, and for the next three years, both gangs shot each other on sight, resulting in numerous casualties on both sides.

Johnson and St. Clair caught a break, when in 1935, Luciano, tired of the murderous Schultz’ unpredictable violence, had Schultz gunned down in a New Jersey steakhouse. Luciano gave Schultz’ numbers rackets to “Trigger” Mike Coppola, a captain in what was later to be called the Genovese Crime Family. But Luciano, remembering Johnson’s capabilities, cut a deal with Johnson, allowing Johnson and St. Clair to keep their independent Harlem numbers business in tact. This made Johnson an instant hero in Harlem to the black people, and it also gave Johnson respect and credibility with the Italian mob. Soon, St. Clair opted for retirement, and she turned over her number operations to Johnson.

With the backing of the Italian mob, Johnson became “The Man” in Harlem. He rubbed elbows with several Harlem celebrities, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday and World Middleweight Champion Sugar Ray Robinson. He was also the uncrowned Crime Boss of Harlem, and no one could run an illegal operation in Harlem without clearing it with Johnson first and cutting him in for a piece of the pie.

From 1940 until 1968, Johnson acted as a “middleman” between the Genovese Crime Family, who operated out of Italian Harlem, which was the area surrounding East 116th Street, and the black gangsters operating out of the main section of Harlem. Johnson brokered numerous drug deals between black dealers and the Italian suppliers, who were importing the drugs from overseas. Johnson was also known as a “persuader,” or a high-level gangster who could settle mob disputes before they erupted into violence. It is estimated that during the time he was in power in Harlem, Johnson brokered deals, mostly drug affairs, involving tens of millions of dollars, with the Genovese Crime Family.

In 1952, Johnson was indicted for conspiracy to sell heroin and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. While he was at Alcatraz, it was rumored he helped three fellow inmates escape. Although he stood put himself, Johnson was said to have arranged to have a boat pick up the three escapees, once they sneaked out of prison and made it to the San Francisco Bay.

Johnson was released from prison in 1963, and when he returned to Harlem, the local folk threw him a ticker tape parade. In December 1965, Johnson led a sit-down strike in a police station, refusing to leave, as a protest against the cops conducting unreasonable surveillances on his crew. Johnson was charged with “refusal to leave a police station,” but at trial he was found not guilty.

On July 7, 1968, Johnson, under indictment by the Feds for drug conspiracy, was at Wells Restaurant in Harlem at 2 am, munching on a meal of chicken legs and hominy grits, washed down by coffee. When suddenly, he grabbed his chest and fell to the floor. With two-lifelong friends at his side, Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson died of a death attack at the age of 63, forever to be known as the “Harlem Godfather.”

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